Sales tax management for a company doing business in many states across the U.S. requires diligence and a dedication to learning inconsistent and sometimes ambiguous state and local sales tax rules.
Any overlooked nexus-creating activities that trigger sales tax obligations, like inventory in a warehouse or a traveling salesperson, can spell trouble for your company down the line if the state recognizes your obligations before you do.
Due to the current economy, cash-strapped states are only going to get more aggressive in seeking out out-of-state sellers who engage in business in the state. If you realize your company should have been collecting sales tax in a state several years ago, there is a state-sponsored opportunity to right the wrong: a voluntary disclosure agreement.
A voluntary disclosure agreement (VDA) is a contractual agreement between your company and the state in which your company comes forward voluntarily to pay its tax obligations in exchange for state concessions in the form of reduced penalties and limitations on the number of years under consideration for outstanding tax liability.
States VDA programs are ongoing so you can apply anytime. Acceptance into a program will be contingent upon the fact pattern of your company’s noncompliance. Should your company consider a VDA? Check out potential benefits and drawbacks below.
The greatest benefit by far and way of entering a VDA are the financial incentives to your company. The state will typically limit the “look-back” period for unpaid tax to three or four years for sales tax VDAs. For example, if your company did not collect sales tax for 10 years, the state will limit their assessment going back and you will only be required to report and pay tax on the 3-4 years included in the look-back period (vs. the full 10 years). This can result in significant savings for your company if your sales tax liability extends well beyond the look-back period. (However, this won’t apply if you’ve collected the tax but not remitted it!)
A VDA also typically reduces or eliminates penalties associated with the uncollected sales tax. A penalty abatement can also yield significant savings. Penalties accumulated over years of unpaid tax can really come back to bite you if your company is discovered in an audit. Interest on unpaid taxes may or may not be reduced depending on the state.
You can usually enter a VDA anonymously through a representative such as a tax advisor, CPA, or attorney. Your third-party representative will initiate the VDA process with the state by either submitting a letter or an application form on your behalf. Your representative will negotiate penalty reduction, limiting the look-back period, and potentially setting up a payment plan for back taxes that works for your company.
Most states do not require your representative to disclose your company name during this early stage of communication. The representative will be able to determine your eligibility for the VDA program and the types of benefits you may receive while greatly minimizing any negative effect to your business. Anonymity gives you the option to reject the state’s offer.
If you choose to apply anonymously for a VDA in Washington state, you must disclose the business identity within 15 calendar days of the application date. You are only afforded protection from discovery by the Department of Revenue during that 15-day period.
New York is one of the states where anonymity is not part of the VDA process. In New York, you are required to disclose your company name and tax ID as part of the application process.
When you enter into a voluntary disclosure agreement, you demonstrate that prior mistakes resulting in unpaid tax liabilities were not made maliciously, but out of error or a misunderstanding of tax rules.
A VDA allows you to come forward in a low-risk fashion, negotiate terms, get compliant with the state, and move forward in a cost-effective way due to a shortened look-back period and reduced penalties.
However, if the errors causing you to enter the VDA were found as the result of an audit, the situation will likely not result in such an ideal fashion. Once you realize any errors, you don’t want to wait around to be found during a sales tax audit. The penalties of noncompliance could be much steeper.
You cannot participate in a VDA if you have been contacted by the state about an audit or otherwise. If there was contact, the disclosure is nullified. In most cases, if you are already registered, voluntary disclosures are unavailable.
If you do not disclose all of the facts regarding your company’s situation, including nexus creating activities, and the missing facts are material or essential to the agreement, the VDA can be voided.
If you fail to disclose certain key details to your third-party representative during the early stages of the process, you may get to the point in the VDA process where your taxpayer identity is disclosed only to be deemed ineligible because of the impact of the missing information.
You should work closely and carefully with your representative, so you don’t blindside them (even if unintentionally) and potentially end up exposing your company’s identity to the state without being able to take advantage of the protections of a VDA.
Complete your due diligence, which may include a thorough nexus study, and gather all of the information relevant to the VDA process and application as indicated by the state. Which leads us to the second con…
Each state can determine its own requirements for the VDA process. This will directly impact how much work you have to do and how much information you must gather.
Part of the VDA process includes disclosing your sales connected to your uncollected tax for the period under scrutiny for the VDA. Some states, such as Ohio and Tennessee, allow you to fill out a spreadsheet indicating typically the amount of taxable sales per period going back. Other states, like California and New York, will require you to complete tax returns for each period instead of a consolidated spreadsheet.
A component of determining tax owed from prior period sales is using the correct sales tax rate for the jurisdictions you made sales into. Some states will allow you to use a “blended” tax rate instead of requiring you to break your sales out by each jurisdiction within the state and the period the sale was made. Washington takes this approach and calls it a “pool” rate.
Another nuance among states involves eligibility. Most states will allow companies that have registered and filed for income tax in that state to enter a VDA for sales tax, but some states do not allow this.
Most states require a VDA to include all taxes that your company is subject to, based on company activities. The types of activities uncovered, particularly those that impact nexus, could result in additional types of tax liabilities being due to the state. Sales tax nexus in a state is a decent indicator of nexus exposure for other tax types.
If you participate in a sales tax VDA and the facts you disclose indicate that your company should also be filing for income tax, the state will want you to initiate a VDA for income tax as well. In some states like Ohio and Washington, you may be on the hook for hybrid, shape-shifting gross receipts taxes.
What started as a mission to come into compliance for one type of tax may unfold differently than expected.
If your company qualifies, using a VDA to proactively come forward and pay what you owe is the most advisable option. Choosing to play the audit lottery once you discover noncompliance in your company is risky business. Penalties will be much steeper should an auditor find you. Additionally, the state tax agency can assess tax as far back as your nexus date without the protection of a limited look-back period of a VDA. Public companies subject to ASC450 provisions likely can’t avoid taking the corrective actions.
You must weigh the pros and cons specific to your company’s situation. Forgoing a VDA and registering through the standard registration process for sales tax may be the best fit for your company in the end.
Voluntary disclosure agreements aren’t the only option to get right with the state in a way that limits your liability and exposure. On occasion, states will offer a state tax amnesty program that allows taxpayers to pay back taxes without any penalties or interest if they register within the program timeframe.
Revenue shortfalls stemming from the pandemic mean states will be more vigilant in their pursuit of non-compliant companies. Sales tax experts hypothesize that states may begin to offer new sales tax amnesty programs in the coming months to encourage businesses to comply with economic nexus laws.
That being said, there’s no time like the present to learn how to leverage a VDA or participation in an amnesty program to your advantage.